Q&A: Overview of the Book of Numbers

Overview of the Book of Numbers

Question

Overview of the Book of Numbers

Answer

Overview of the Book of Numbers

Author: The author is Moses.

Purpose:

To call the second generation of the exodus to serve God as his holy army in the conquest of the promised land by avoiding the failures of the past and by remaining faithful to God's directives.

Date: c. 1406 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • God fully prepared his people to serve him and to succeed in the conquest of the Promised Land.
  • The members of the first generation failed to succeed because they were ungrateful for the grace God had shown them and feared the power of the Canaanites.
  • God raised up another generation for the conquest of the promised land, but they also had to remain faithful to the Lord in order to succeed.

Author:

Like the rest of the Pentateuch, Numbers was written by Moses, although a few portions may have been added at later times. See the "Introduction to the Pentateuch" for further discussion of the authorship of the Pentateuch and of Numbers.

Time and Place of Writing:

We may date the book in the period after the wilderness wandering and before the death of Moses around 1406 B.C. The book begins with the preparations for the march across the desert and ends with the preparation for entering Canaan (Num. 22:1; 26:3, 63; 31:12; 33:48, 50; 34:15; 35:1; 36:13). Numbers was written for the generation of Israelites born in the desert as they waited in the plains of Moab across from Jericho. Moses encouraged them to persevere in faith and obedience, whereas their parents had not. As the Israelites prepared for the conquest of Canaan, this book called them to move forward as the Lord's holy army.

Purpose and Distinctives:

The title of this book in the Hebrew Bible derives from the fifth Hebrew word of the first verse, which is translated "in the desert" - a good description of the book's content. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek (the Septuagint), its books were given Greek names. In this case, a Greek word that actually describes only the lists of fighting men was adopted: Arithmoi, or "Numbers."

At least three themes are vital to the message of Numbers. First, Numbers vividly describes the mercy and faithfulness of God toward his people. It shows God directing his people as they prepared for their journey through the wilderness, comforting them in their difficulties, dealing with their fears and punishing them only after extending them much patience. The failures of the Israelites - even those of the best of them, including Aaron, Miriam, and Moses - are contrasted with the perfection of the ever-faithful, covenant God.

A second major theme of Numbers is the sovereign power of God to accomplish his purposes. This book shows the utter failure of the first generation and God's severe judgment against them. Yet it also offered hope to the second generation of the exodus: God was still directing history toward his goal of bringing Israel into the promised land. God's purposes will not fail, even if his people do.

The third vital theme is the responsibility of God's people to be faithful to the calling God has given them. The book ends abruptly with the second generation preparing to enter the land. No record is given of the battles they faced across the Jordan. This book was written to call the second generation to move forward into the conquest as God's holy army.

One of the most controversial matters that arise when interpreting this book is the large numbers of soldiers listed (see Num. 1, 26). The total population would have been over two million if these numbers are taken literally. Archeological difficulties arise when the sizes of Canaanite cities at the time are compared with this figure. Moreover, other numbers (such as that of the firstborn in Num. 3:43) present difficulties in comparison to such a large total figure.

In the history of interpretation, those who maintain belief in the veracity of Scripture have taken at least five major views regarding this problem:

(1) The numbers are taken literally despite the apparent difficulties.

(2) The current numbers in the Hebrew Bible are explained as resulting from corruptions of the texts during the history of transmission.

(3) The Hebrew word translated "thousand" may be a technical term referring to units considerably less than a "thousand."

(4) The Hebrew word translated "thousand" may be emended to read "chiefs."

(5) The numbers are taken as hyperboles, exaggerations intended by the writer and understood by the readers to highlight the astounding grace God had shown to Israel.

Christ in Numbers:

Numbers gives a historical portrait that points forward to Christ in at least five major ways. First, in general terms, as the book describes Israel preparing, failing and preparing again for holy war in Canaan, Christian readers are reminded of the final stages of holy war through which Christ will win the new heavens and the new earth. Christ began the last battle against the enemies of God when he died and rose from the dead (Col. 2:15; Heb. 2:14-15). He continues this war through the preaching of the Gospel by the Church today (Acts 15:15-17; Eph. 6:10-18). Finally, when Christ returns, the battle for the world will be complete (Rev. 19:11-21; 21:1-5).

Second, the repeated focus of the book on the faithfulness of God's people reminds Christians not only of the salvation that comes through Christ's perfect obedience (2 Cor. 5:19) but also of his call for those who follow him to seek holiness (Heb. 12:14).

Third, Christ is also revealed in some specific types in Numbers. For example, the work of Christ is foreshadowed by the typology of the red heifer (Num. 19; Heb 9:13), by the bringing of water from the rock (Num. 20:11; 1 Cor. 10:4), and by the raised serpent that brought life out of death (Num. 21:4-9; John 3:14-15).

Fourth, the specific prophecy of the conquests of David, who would defeat Israel's enemies (Num. 24:15-19), foreshadows Christ, who as the great son of David will one day be universally recognized as the greatest King of all.

Finally, the centrality of the Tabernacle also foreshadows Christ. Jesus came to dwell [lit. "tabernacle"] among humanity in his first coming (John 1:14), and by his death and resurrection he opened up the way for all who believe to enter the very presence of God (Mark 15:38; Heb. 6:19; 10:20). The apostle Paul taught that the Church is the Temple of God and that individual Christians are the Temple of God (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19-20; Eph. 2:19-22). At the second advent, the dwelling of God will be with humanity in fullness, and believers will no longer need a Temple for the Lord God, for the Lamb will be the Temple (Rev. 21:3, 22).

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Pentateuch

Copyright:

Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.